Dream of the bed chamber | The Economist

“SEX, sex, sexual intercourse, penis, penis, vagina.”

More than 150 undergraduates are sitting in a lecture hall at China Agricultural University in Beijing, shouting loudly. Many are sexually active, or soon will be. Yet for most it is the first sex education class they have attended.

Their instructor hopes that shouting such words will help youngsters talk more openly about sex. Lu Zhongbao, a 24-year-old forestry student, says he was told as a child that he “emerged from a rock”. When he started having sex with his university girlfriend he had little idea about contraception. This evening he arrived an hour early armed with another question: will masturbating damage his health?

It is not just China’s economy that has loosened up since 1979. The country is in the midst of a sexual revolution. A 2012 study found that more than 70% of Chinese people have sex before marriage. Other polls put that figure lower but consistently indicate that over the past 30 years, more young Chinese are doing it, with more partners, at a younger age. But a lack of sex education means that many are not protecting themselves, resulting in soaring abortion rates and a rise in sexually transmitted diseases.

The Communist Party has stuck its nose into people’s bedrooms for 30 years through its harsh family-planning policies. Yet taboos on sex before marriage prevailed, the result of paternalistic—not religious—values about female chastity, with a dose of Communist asceticism thrown in. Pre-marital sex fell foul of a range of laws, including the catch-all charge of “hooliganism”, only scrapped in 1997.

The social climate remains chilly. Most news items about sex involve scandals or crimes. Schools ban pupils from dating and many deploy “morality patrols” to root out flirting or frolicking couples. Sex outside wedlock is not illegal but children born to unmarried mothers face obstacles obtaining a hukou, or household residency, that entitles them to subsidised education and welfare. Yet with greater freedom from their parents, more money and increasing exposure to permissive influences from abroad, China’s youth are clearly separating sex from procreation.

Education on the subject is compulsory in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan—societies that have some cultural similarities with China. But most Chinese schools teach only basic anatomy.

This is not entirely for lack of trying. Pilot campaigns in Shanghai and Beijing schools in the 1980s were incorporated into a nationwide programme in 1988 but it was never implemented. In 2008 the Ministry of Education included sex education in the national health and hygiene curriculum. The barriers are not just prudery. Like football, fashion and other teenage pastimes, sex (and learning about it) is seen as a distraction from studies. “Sex is not an exam subject,” says Sheng Yingyi, a 21-year-old student.

Where classes happen, most students are merely given a textbook. “Happy Middle School Students”, written for 12- to 15-year-olds in 2006 and still widely used, refers to sperm meeting egg without describing the mechanics of intercourse. A more explicit volume for primary-school pupils published in 2011, which did explain how sperm were delivered, was criticised for being pornographic.

The dominant message is to abstain. A 2013 review by UNESCO and Beijing Forestry University noted the prevalence of “terror-based” sex education, with content largely focused on the horrors of pregnancy, abortion and HIV. Earlier this month a university in Xi’an in central China ran a course entitled “No Regrets Youth” where students received a “commitment card”, essentially a pledge to remain a virgin until marriage.

Source: Dream of the bed chamber | The Economist

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